By Henning Gloystein / Reuters
LONDON: The eastern Mediterranean’s promise of energy riches has spurred some encouraging deals between governments, but deeper regional conflicts stand in the way of unlocking one of the world’s largest gas reserves, experts said on Thursday.
There is enough gas to power the region for generations, with exploration results showing over 100 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of reserves could lay untapped under the seabed.
But the findings, so far largely in waters off Israel and Cyprus, have also spotlighted land and maritime border disputes in the region involving Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
Some encouraging progress has been made.
Egypt and Cyprus defined their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the Mediterranean in 2003, Lebanon and Cyprus theirs in 2007, and Israel and Cyprus agreed on their EEZs in 2010.
But experts say land border disputes will overshadow any wider negotiations over gas exploration for years to come.
“The land rules the seas. If you don’t have an agreed land boundary …you cannot state with any certainty where adjacent maritime boundaries begin,” Richard Schofield, senior adviser at Menas Borders, a territorial and boundary dispute consultancy, told a briefing in London.
“We have problems with almost every boundary in this region,” Schofield said. “None of this maritime stuff is worth a squat without a land border agreement.”
Lebanon has no diplomatic relations with Israel, Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, which, along with the European Union, does not recognize Turkish-speaking northern Cyprus.
The longstanding border dispute between governments in Tel Aviv and Beirut stands in the way as maritime zones are usually based on extensions of land borders, Schofield said.
Difficulties with Israel’s claims could grow deeper still should a potential Palestinian state come into being.
“By any definition, the Mari-B gas field should in part go to Gaza and a potential Palestinian state,” Schofield said.
It has an estimated reserve of 1.3 tcf, enough to supply Israel’s gas demand for more than a decade.
The UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement from 1982, helps define national rights and responsibilities in maritime issues.
But Turkey and Israel have not officially endorsed it.
And in Egypt, which also hopes to find gas in its waters, there is uncertainty too, following the collapse of its government during last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.
Large gas fields
In Israel, the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields are amongst the biggest offshore findings in decades, with reserve estimates 8.5 and 16 tcf respectively.
Lebanon has said that small parts of the Leviathan field could be in its own waters, a claim Tel Aviv rejects.
Beirut is expected to start its own round of exploration licensing this summer.
The recently discovered Aphrodite gas field, which is estimated at 7 tcf, is largely in Cypriot waters, although some part of it could be in Israel’s EEZ.
But cooperation between Israel and Cyprus works well, with the two governments having a defined EEZ and joint exploration agreements in place.
Cyprus’ problem lies with Turkey.
Ankara has warned against unilateral exploration by the Republic of Cyprus, arguing that any mineral resource revenues would have to be shared with the Turkish claimed North of the island.
Egypt and Turkey have both said they would announce exploration license tenders soon.
“Egypt and Turkey have been very encouraged by recent findings and they may announce licensing rounds very soon,” said Charles Gurdong, also a managing director at Menas Borders.
Finally, there is Syria which also has potential claims to gas in the region.
“Syria has been incredibly silent in this matter, and I doubt that this will change until the country settles down domestically,” Schofield said.
Thousands of people have been killed in Syria during a year-long popular revolt against President Bashar Al-Assad’s rule, internationally isolating the country.